Thursday, April 20, 2017

ORPHANS – REVIEW OF COAL MINE THEATRE PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas

Helen and Danny live in a nice apartment and are having dinner with some white wine. They have one child but have reason to celebrate: Helen is pregnant again. 

That is the opening scene of Orphans by Dennis Kelly now playing in a terrific production at the Coal Mine Theatre in Toronto.

The happy scene is quickly broken with the entry of Helen’s brother Liam who is covered with blood. He speaks quickly, nervously, in broken sentences in a thick Cockney accent that reveals more than he says. He saw an injured man on the street, he tells his sister and his brother-in-law and he tried to help him but they start asking questions, a lot of questions, and we start doubting Liam’s version of events.

The plot of Kelly’s brilliant 2009 play shifts like the proverbial quicksand as the dynamics among the three characters change. Liam, played superbly by Tim Dowler-Coltman, looks for support from his sister, is beaten down with questioning, seethes with violence, takes the upper hand and we slowly get the revelation of a racist and indeed a monster. An admirable performance by Dowler-Coltman.
 Diana Bentley and Tim Dowler-Coltman in Orphans. Photo: Shaun Benson  
Diana Bentley as Helen goes through a number of transformations as the sister of Liam. The two were raised as orphans after the tragic death of their parents and they need to stand by each other. She tries to protect Liam but is compelled to keep asking questions about the incident with the injured stranger. Her husband Danny appears like a reserved gentleman but is he that or a coward? Again we have the shifting sand and the continuing revelations. Bentley gives a finely controlled and nuanced performance.

David Patrick Flemming as Danny appears reserved and gentlemanly, the type of character that may be described in the old phrase as having a stiff upper lip. There is more to him than that and we see him as well go through different phases as the situation unfolds. A splendid performance.

The set by Brian Dudkiewicz in the tiny theatre (it is really a converted store with about eighty seats at each end of the space with a playing area in the middle) consists of a couch and a table and chairs with a simple bookshelf. It looks pleasant enough for a young couple.

At an hour and a half with no intermission, with numerous changes in the relations among the three main characters, the play presents considerable difficult in maintaining a taut pace and unfailing performances. The credit for that goes to director Leona Morris for delivering a gem of a production.

The fourth character is the play Shane, the couple’s young boy, played by Cody Black.

When we have become fully aware of Liam’s character and get a glimpse of the world or at least his version of the world, we and Helen and Danny have seen something dreadful. Helen’s reaction goes from the celebration of her pregnancy in the opening scene to considering abortion at the end.

An outstanding night at the theatre.
   ______

Orphans by Dennis Kelly opened on April 12 and will run until April 30, 2017 at the 

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

OUR MARIA CALLAS – REVIEW OF TSOKAS’S FILM ABOUT THE GREAT SOPRANO

Reviewed by James Karas

Babis Tsokas, the Greek-Swedish director, describes his film Our Maria Callas about the famous soprano as a dramatized documentary. That looks like an oxymoron but as it turns out that it is in fact a documentary with dramatized sections.

The film concentrates on the personal history, the tragic life and the Greek roots of the great singer. Her artistic achievement is mentioned and we hear her voice in the background singing some of her signature arias but the film is an homage to the tragic woman who achieved greatness in art but rarely found happiness.

Tsokas, born in 1945, immigrated to Sweden in 1969 and like many immigrants searches his roots. He does the same thing with Callas. Her paternal roots are in a village called Neochori in Messinia. Tsokas finds the ancestral Callas home in the village which looks like a house in Syria that was just bombed. 
 Tsokas (left) filming Myrto Kamvisidi

Maria never lived in that village because her parents left for the United States in July 1923 after the death of their son Vassilis and perhaps because of it. Maria was born in New York on December 2, 1923. She visited the village of her roots during World War II. Tsokas emphasizes Callas’s “Greekness” throughout the film and looks to the tragic aspects of her life as being akin to the fate of some of the heroines of Ancient Greek tragedy.

The importance that Tsokas places on Callas’s Greekness ranges from her singing a traditional Greek song in her youth, to the time she spent in Greece between 1937 and 1945 and visited Neochori, and to her consciousness of being Greek throughout her life.  When she is betrayed by tycoon Aristotle Onassis (he famously dumped her for Jackie Kennedy) Tsokas thinks of the betrayed as a parallel to Medea’s fate who hurls curses at the treachersous Jason who abandons her for a princess.

Maria’s mother showed little affection for her and always favored her sister Jackie. Relations between the two deteriorated so drastically that in the end her mother did not even attend Maria’s funeral.

Tsokas uses film clips and still photos from the life of Callas and dramatizes some parts in black and white and others in colour. He uses Myrto Kamvisidi to play Callas. She has is a strikingly beautiful face that bears some resemblance to Callas (who was not beautiful) and she speaks lines attributed to the soprano as well as singing a lullaby. There is no attempt for her to act out Callas’s histrionic side but she does illustrate some events in the life of Callas.
 Tsokas and Kamvisidi
One of the touching scenes that Tsokas recreates with Kamvisidi is Callas’s visit to the Chapel on the private island of Scorpios where Onassis is buried. She is carrying flowers for his tomb but the chapel is locked and she is forced to simply leave the flowers behind. Onassis was the love of her life. She had been married to Giovanni Battista Meneghini   and Tsokas gives an image of a loving couple where he adores and protects her and she loves him but more like a father than passionate mate. There is a darker side to the controlling Meneghini but there is no doubt that he helped her career and her letters to him show deep emotion.   

Tsokas used over two hundred volunteers and all the actors, except Kamvisidi, were amateurs and were used more to illustrate scenes than to act in them. We visit some of the cities of Callas’s triumphs (New York, London, Paris, Milan, and Verona) as well as residences in Greece and Paris.

We get an engrossing picture of the woman behind the voice and the legend. Tsokas views Callas’s life as tragic. The applause, the adulation and the fame were inevitably followed by a lonely evening at her apartment. Tsokas attributes some of her emotional turmoil and depression to her loveless relationship with her mother, her tragic relationship with Onassis and her failure to produce any children.

Tsokas I think sums up her life by reference to one of the arias that she sung so gloriously: Vissi d'arte from Act II of Puccini’s Tosca. Tosca, a singer, who is about to sacrifice her life for her lover sums up her life in words that are applicable to Maria as well. “I lived for my art, I lived for love. I never did harm to a living soul!”

Callas was supreme in her art, unfortunate in her love and a woman of the Greek diaspora whose life and achievement stretched from the valleys of Messinia to the plains of ancient Attica and around the world.   
_____________

Our Maria Callas, a film directed by Babis Tsokas was shown at the Polymenakio Cultural Centre 30 Thorncliffe Park Drive, Toronto, ON M4H 1H8 on April 3, 2017.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

MRS HENDERSON PRESENTS – REVIEW OF MUSICAL AT ROYAL ALEX

Reviewed by James Karas

Laura Henderson gained fame and notoriety in the 1930’s by showing naked breasts in her theatre in London.  She became the subject of the 2005 film Mrs Henderson Presents in which she was played by Judi Dench. The story proved too good to be ignored and a musical based on it appeared in 2015 and is now playing at the Royal Alexandra Theatre.

Mr Henderson had the misfortune of dying in 1919 but had the decency to leave the feisty Mrs Henderson with a hefty pile of money. She used it to buy a theatre and hired a no-nonsense manager to run it. The Windmill Theatre in London’s West end was not a success and something had to be done about it. How about some naked breasts?
 
The cast of MRS HENDERSON PRESENTS ©2017, Cylla von Tiedemann
In conservative, censored England of the 1930’s that was unlikely to be allowed but, one could see paintings of naked women in the museum. Botticelli, Raphael, Rubens and many other artists celebrated nudity, so why not bare breasted women in the theatre? It was acceptable to do that provided the women stood still as if they were paintings.

There are a few good lines about nakedness in the musical. When you go below, far below the breasts you reach the pudendum which is a foreign word that few can understand. Well, call the area the Netherlands and make it more acceptable with the use of conservative hair dresses.

How Mrs Henderson and Van Damm got around the restriction on nudity in the theatre is the most famous aspect of the story, but it is by no means a central concern of the musical. This is a story about London in the late 1930’s and during the war, about backstage life in a theatre that produced continuous revues, about love, loss and a couple of interesting characters.

Tracie Bennett as Mrs Henderson and Peter Polycarpou as the manager Vivian Van Damm dominate the performance. Mrs Henderson is crotchety, tough, humane, difficult to get along with and in the end a bit of a theatrical legend. Bennett has a husky voice that she uses to good effect in an enjoyable performance.
 
Tracie Bennett and Evelyn Hoskins in MRS HENDERSON PRESENTS ©2017, Cylla von Tiedemann
Polycarpou as Van Damm is a good match for Mrs Henderson as a man of the theatre who has to deal with financial and artistic issues and we admire the relationship that he forges with his boss.

There is a touching love story involving Eddie (Matthew Malthouse) and Maureen (Evelyn Hoskins) who sing “What a Waste of a Moon” and bring home the effects of war. We have a seen in the London Underground where people hid during the bombing of the city as well as the determination to carry on. Mrs Henderson’s theatre was the only one that did not close during the war.

The set by Tim Shortall shows the backstage of Mrs Henderson’s theatre as well as the open roof garret and the underground to good effect.

The costumes by Paul Wills are colourful for the performers and appropriate for the other characters. The choreography by Andrew Wright has the fine feel of British music hall dancing perfectly matching what we would have wanted to see if we were there some eighty years ago, give or take. Full credit to director Terry Johnson.

The music by George Fenton and Simon Chamberlain ranges from recitative to almost ballad and the lyrics by Don Black are appropriate. The book by Terry Johnson tells the story well with good humour, dramatic scenes and touching romance that make for a very pleasant night at the theatre.
______ 

Mrs Henderson Presents by Terry Johnson (Book) Don Black (Lyrics),  George Fenton and Simon Chamberlain (Music), continues  until April 23, 2017 at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, 260 King St. W. Toronto, Ont. www.mirvish.com

Friday, March 31, 2017

BOYS WITH CARS – REVIEW OF YPT PRODUCTION OF ANITA MAJUMDAR’SS PLAY

By James Karas

Boys With Cars, now playing at the Young People’s Theatre, is written, choreographed and performed solo by Anita Majumdar. If you are not impressed by such a display of talent and ability, well, you should be.

The play deals with the world of teenage girls in a high school in Port Moody, B.C. Naz is of Indian origin and Port Moody Secondary School is largely white. Majumdar takes us though the angst and experiences of teenagers that are even worse for girls of different racial origin.
 
Relationships with boys play a central role. Naz has a boyfriend called Lucky who breaks off the relationship when she “fools around” with his friend Buddy. How do boys view girls? The macho, sexist, demeaning attitude of men towards women and boys towards girls that some of us would like to see as something from the past is very much alive and thriving in the Vancouver suburb of Port Moody (and the rest of the country for that matter).

Bullying, the question of consent and the horrors of growing up are all brought forth by Majumdar. If a girl is raped, can it be considered her fault?

Majumdar is an extraordinary dancer and she performs some beautiful numbers that she has choreographed.

The second half of the play focuses on Candace, the blonde, popular student who gives lessons on YouTube about dress and makeup. The worlds of Naz and Candace seem totally separate but they are also similar. She is nasty and competitive with boys, especially Buddy, being her target and a way of one-upping Naz.

The audience consisted almost entirely of high school students the afternoon that I saw the production. They were attentive and during the Q&A period following the performance showed an admirable grasp of the issues presented in the play.

Majumdar explained that it took her about 10 years to write the play which in this version for young people combines two plays from The Fish Eyes Trilogy - Boys with Cars and Let Me Borrow That Top. 

A highly praise-worthy production for teenagers.
 ______  

Boys With Cars by Anita Majumdar runs from March 23 to April 1, 2017 at the Young People’s Theatre, 165 Front Street East, Toronto, Ontario. 416 862-2222. www.youngpeoplestheatre.ca

Thursday, March 30, 2017

BUTCHER – REVIEW OF BILLON’S PLAY AT PANASONIC THEATRE

By James Karas

Butcher is a play by Nicolas Billon now playing at the Panasonic Theatre in Toronto. In good conscience, almost nothing should be disclosed about the plot so that people going to see the production will get the full benefit of its intricacies, and appreciate the total shock of the play.

I will deal with my conscience at another time but I will tell you as much as is permissible without spoiling your enjoyment and the surprises of the plot. I will give hints.

Hint 1: Read Agamemnon by Aeschylus.

Butcher was first performed in Calgary in 2014. The action takes place in a police station near the Toronto East General Hospital. It is early morning on December 25 and Detective Lamb is manning the station for the night. An old man wearing a Santa Claus hat and an army officer’s uniform with a meat hook around his neck and a lawyer’s business card attached on it is taken to the police station. 
 Andrew Musselman, Tony Nappo and John Koensgen in BUTCHER ©2017, Freddie Lau
The lawyer, Hamilton Barnes, has no idea how his card got on the meat hook but he is sympathetic and tries to help. An interpreter has been called in to help because the old man does not speak any English. The interpreter arrives and there is an explosion in the development of the plot that will keep you glued to you seat as your blood pressure rises to vein-bursting levels.

Hint 2: Read The Libation-Bearers by Aeschylus.

Detective Lamb has two daughters and Iris, the younger one, does not want to go to sleep because she is waiting for Santa Claus. He has Hamilton, the lawyer, talk to Iris as if he were Santa Claus and convince her that he will bring her presents only after she goes to sleep.

Elena the interpreter, it turns out, is also a nurse. She tends to the old man who is Josef Dzibrilovo. He speaks a South Slavic language called Lavinian which is comprehensible only to the characters of the play.

Hint 3: Read The Eumenides by Aeschylus.
 
Andrew Musselman, Tony Nappo and Miranda Calderon in BUTCHER ©2017, Freddie Lau
The twists and turns of the plot, the naked violence, the horrors we see on the stage and the even worse ones that are described make for a tsunami-force impact that will shake you to the core. You will realize one more time that “civilization” may be just a precarious veneer and that in certain situations there is not even a scintilla of humanity. Revenge becomes a mild word.

Hint 4: Read Deuteronomy 32:35
Hint 5: Become acquainted with the role of the Furies in Greek myth and tragedy.

The actors must reach very high levels of emotional intensity and maintain it for almost Marathonian lengths. Tony Nappo as Detective Lamb, the family man waiting to finish his shift and go home to his family, goes through a gamut of emotions and keeps a big surprise for us. Miranda Calderon as Elena the interpreter does the same with great effectiveness.

Andrew Musselman as the compassionate lawyer Hamilton has a number of surprises for us as does John Koensgen as the mysterious Josef Dzibrilovo.  You will also find out the meaning of the appearance of Kasey Nugent as a Young Girl.

The set by Yannik Larivee is that of a workman-like police station with filing cabinets and desks as a perfect, non-descript background for some extraordinary and at the same time perhaps very commonplace events.

All of it is directed by Weyni Mengesha in a fine example of riveting theatre.

If the Bible, Aeschylus and Greek mythology have not helped, you may ignore Hints 1 to 5 and jump the last one.

Hint 6: Go see Butcher at the Panasonic Theatre.
____


Butcher by Nicolas Billon in a production by The Why Not Theatre, opened on March 28 and will play until April 9, 2017 at the Panasonic Theatre, 651 Yonge Street, Toronto
Ontario, M4Y 1Z9. Tel: (416) 872-1212.
www.mirvish.com

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

LA TRAVIATA IN INSPIRED AND OUTSTANDING PRODUCTION LIVE FROM THE MET OPERA

By James Karas

The Metropolitan Opera has sent Willy Decker’s inspired production of La Traviata around the world live from the Met once again. Decker directed the opera for the Salzburg Festival in 2005 and it was shown in movie houses Live from the Met 2012. It is a production that rates the word masterpiece.

Decker almost reinvents the opera as he focuses on the characters in the tragedy which is performed on an almost bare stage with the most prominent feature being a huge clock. It is the perfect symbol for Violetta, the courtesan pursued by many but loved by none, who is under sentence of death to her illness and the clock is ticking towards her final demise.
 
Sonya Yoncheva as Violetta in Verdi's La Traviata. Photo by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera. 
When the curtain opens, we see an empty stage and during the overture Violetta (Sonya Yoncheva) stumbles towards a forbidding old man with gray hair wearing a black coat. He will appear a number of times throughout the performance. In the final scene we will see him as Dr. Grenvil (bass-baritone James Courtney), the sympathetic physician who attends on Violetta, but that is not his real role in this production.

He struck me as being Charon, not just the ferryman who took souls across the Styx in Greek mythology, but the being who takes the souls of people from their deathbed. The mysterious figure in Decker’s interpretation of the opera may be the personification of death but I prefer to see him as Charon who waits for Violetta’s time on earth to run out so he can take her soul.

There are many splendid touches by Decker that illuminate the opera. The guests at the party in the opening scene are all men. Even her friend Flora (mezzo soprano Rebecca Jo Loeb) is turned into a pants role. Violetta has no friends, only clients.

For the second act scene in the country, the five couches that are all the props on stage are covered with brightly colored fabric and Violetta and Alfredo wear housecoats that match the couch covers. This is domestic bliss. They are happy, playful and in love. Charon is nowhere to be seen and the clock that is ticking towards Violetta’s death is covered.

When Giorgio Germont appears and wrecks the couple’s happiness, the couch covers are removed and the clock is uncovered to continue its relentless pace.
 Michael Fabiano and Sonya Yoncheva in La Traviata. Photo by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera. 
Yoncheva makes an astounding Violetta. She presents a tough exterior and knows that being a courtesan will not allow her the luxury of a conventional love relationship and she is equally aware that her death is imminent. But all of that goes by the board when Alfredo declares his love and proves his devotion to her. Yoncheva has a plush voice that evoked her character with splendor. The final scene where she knows she is about to die and Charon is right there to take her soul is extraordinarily moving. The clock disappears, Charon pulls back because he probably has her soul and she finds peace and almost apotheosis as we ache with sorrow at her fate.

Michael Fabiano as Alfredo makes a perfect match for her. He is tender, fragile, shy and the perhaps the type that would fall madly in love with a beautiful courtesan. This Alfredo is believable because a strong personality would more likely use Violetta as a paying satisfier of his ego and lust rather than desiring her as a wife. A clue to his character is given by an incident when he is with his father. When Alfredo resists his father’s imploring, the latter hits him across the face so hard that he knocks him to the floor.

Baritone Thomas Hampson has sung the role so many times that he can do it on automatic pilot. He does not. He is effective both in his vocal output and as the conniving father who is prepared to use emotional blackmail and violence, and as a sympathetic father and eventually friend to both Alfredo and Violetta.

Matthew Diamond directs the performance for live cinema with in measured camera shots that allow us to see the performance. He does not think La Traviata is a video game and it is a pleasure to watch a sensibly directed broadcast.    

Nicola Luisotti conducts The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in this defining production of the perennial favorite.
  ____

La Traviata by Giuseppe Verdi was shown Live in HD from the Metropolitan Opera on March 11 and there will be encore broadcasts on April 15, 17 and 19, 2017 at various Cineplex Cinemas. For more information visit www.cineplex.com/events

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

SAINT JOAN – REVIEW OF DONMAR PRODUCTION LIVE FROM THE NATIONAL THEATRE

Reviewed by James Karas

Bernard Shaw’s St. Joan opens famously with Captain Robert de Baudricourt screaming at his steward “No eggs! No eggs!! …what do you mean by no eggs?” The steward replies that “it is an act of God.”

That is not how the play opens in the Donmar Warehouse production seen in movie theatres in the National Theatre Live broad cast. We see three large screens and watch the business report that tells us there is a serious shortage of eggs in France and the price has gone through the roof.


Then we meet Robert and his steward and follow Shaw’s text. But will have a number of news stories as the action of the play develops.
 Gemma Arterton as Saint Joan 
Director Josie Rourke has brought Saint Joan into the 21st century in a stunning production that makes the play seem as if it were written yesterday and makes for extraordinary theatre.

Aside from the TV screens, the dominant feature of the play is a large boardroom table set on a revolving stage. The confrontation between Joan on one side and the combined power of Church and the political authorities on the other is as relevant today as it was in 1429.

The focal point of any production must be the character of Saint Joan. Rourke directs Gemma Arterton into a believable and powerful character. She avoids making Saint Joan sanctimonious which can be almost fatal to a modern production. Arterton’s Saint Joan is strong without being haughty and humble without being servile. She must choose between her inner voices and the massive authority of the Church. She states with conviction but without arrogance that she is a child of the Church but refuses to abandon the commands of God. This is a magnificent performance by Arterton and a brilliant approach to the play by Rourke.

Shaw’s verbosity is never far off in most of his plays and we do get somewhat bogged down in the lengthy discussion among Warwick, Bishop Cauchon and the Chaplain. But that is a minor issue.

The rest of the performance is riveting and the dramatic effect struck me as if this were the first time I was seeing the play.

Some of the outstanding performances:  Jo Stone-Fewings plays the wily, unscrupulous and powerful Earl of Warwick who wants to capture and execute Joan. Niall Buggy plays the Archbishop of Rheims, a bulldog of a man, a cleric in name only, who, like the other clerics, wants to protect his power and by extension the total authority of the Church. Less obnoxious but equally authoritarian is Elliot Levy as Cauchon, the Bishop of Beauvais  
 
Fisayo Akinade and Gemma Arterton in Saint Joan 
Fisayo Akinade plays the Dauphin, a pathetic weakling who objects even to wearing the coronation robes because they were too heavy. 

The Inquisitor (Rory Keenan), the English Chaplain, John de Stogumber (Richard Cant) and the rest join forces and accuse Joan of being a witch, a heretic, a potential destroyer of the power of the nobility and most importantly a disobedient servant of the Church. They are protecting nothing more than their supremacy and authority over people and God and religion are the tools that they use godlessly and brutally.

Some may argue that Saint Joan in the 15th century, Shaw in the 20th century (the play premiered in 1923) and Josie Rourke’s production in the 21st century constitute a statement about women’s rights. I think not. The play is about totalitarian control of people.


This is a brilliant interpretation of the play with superb performances.
   _____
Saint Joan by Bernard Shaw was shown at various Cineplex Cinemas on March 12, 2017. For more information visit:  http://www.cineplex.com/

Sunday, March 12, 2017

THE MILLENNIAL MALCONTENT – REVIEW OF ERIN SHIELDS’ PLAY AT TARRAGON

Reviewed by James Karas

It is possible to watch a play and get very little out of it. The characters, the plot and just about everything about it conspire to drive your attention away from the happenings on stage and you end up scratching your head about the whole thing afterwards.

That is what happened to me while watching the premiere of Erin Shields’ The Millennial Malcontent at the Tarragon Theatre. I saw shallow, pretentious, tiresome characters romping around the stage, dressing up in ridiculous costumes for a party and evoking almost nothing. There was some humour that the opening night enthusiastic audience reacted to but I found nothing of substance to enjoy.  
Rong Fu, Natasha Mumba, Frank Cox-O'Connell, Reza Sholeh, James Daly, Amelia Sargisson, 
Alicia Richardson, Liz Peterson. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann 
Shields tells us in a Note in the program that her inspiration for The Millennial came from Sir John Vanbrugh’s The Provoked Wife which he may have written while he was a prisoner in the Bastille and was first acted in 1697. The play is about the unhappy marriage of Sir John Brute and Lady Brute in a world where divorce was not available but adultery was. The characters go off to town in search of love, excitement and revenge, much of it not related to the unhappy marriage that is supposed to be the main plot.

Shields’ play contains echoes of Vanbrugh’s play but it is about today’s superficial, self-centered, Facebook society. No doubt it is intended to be a satire perhaps even a mockery of our youth but it simply misfires.

Johnny (Reza Sholeh) is married to Moxy (Liz Peterson) and they are not happy. Faith (Rong Fu) is in love with Johnny. Frank Cox-O’Connell plays the extravagantly obnoxious Charm who makes videos but spends most of his time tiresomely showing off and frequently at unacceptable decibel levels.
 
Liz Peterson, Rong Fu, Natasha Mumba, Frank Cox-O'Connell. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
Mimi (Amelia Sargisson) is his nice sidekick. We also have Teasel (Natasha Mumba), Heartfelt (James Daly) and Raz (Alicia Richardson. Most of them show up in outlandish costumes the most bizarre being that of a blow-up penis. There are some crude scenes involving genitals and masturbation and some salty language.

Interestingly, The Provoked Wife was roundly denounced for its immorality and in a production in 1701 the actors were indicted for speaking the play’s profane language.

Today’s youth may well be as shallow, pretentious and tiresome, and fully deserve to be satirized as Erin Shields apparently intended but I missed the satire and after a couple of hours I left the theatre trying to figure out what director Peter Hinton and Shields had in mind that simply did not come out.
                                          ______

The Millennial Malcontent by Erin Shields opened on March 9 and will continue until April 9, 2017 at the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace, 30 Bridgman Ave. Toronto, Ontario.  www.tarragontheatre.com

Monday, March 6, 2017

7 STORIES – REVIEW OF REMARKABLE PRODUCTION OF PANYCH’S PLAY AT HART HOUSE THEATRE James Karas

James Karas

Hart House Theatre treats us to a remarkable production of Morris Panych’s 1989 surreal play 7 Stories. It is done by a group of young actors and a production team which display amazing talent.  

As you enter the theatre you see a man holding an umbrella standing on a ledge of a high-rise building. He is clearly contemplating suicide. He stands mostly still until the lights go down in the auditorium and the performance begins.

There are half a dozen windows behind the unnamed Man (Brian Haight) and he will interact with about a dozen people that will pop up from some of the windows. If we assume that the Man is on the edge both physically and metaphorically or, to put it crudely, nuts, it is nothing compared to the people that he meets. 
   Brian Haight as The Man, Rakhee Morzaria as Charlotte, Scott Kuipers as Rodney
The Man at the beginning is mostly a sounding board for some of the lunatics that pop out of the windows but eventually he is allowed to speak about himself and gives a reason for being on the ledge. Haight plays the Man as a reserved and at times stone-faced being who appears far more rational than the other loonies of the play.

The first intruders into the Man’s encounter with his chosen fate are Rodney (Scott Kuipers) and Charlotte (Rakhee Morzaria). They are having an affair. Rodney is a lawyer, Charlotte is a poet and he is trying to kill her. They argue violently and Morzaria gets some great lines and gives a superbly histrionic performance. Kuipers does well as almost her straight man. Morzaria has another juicy role as the one-hundred-year old Lillian. She changed the life of a Frenchman with the only French that she knew which turned out to be “the grapefruit is on the table.”

Kuipers gets more scope for his talents as Michael, the obsessive artist who distinguishes between a shade and a tint. Good work by Kuipers in portraying the punctilious and sensitive appreciator of colour who, like everyone in the play, has loose hinges.

Nicole Hrgetic plays Michael’s partner Joan and the sadistic Nurse Wilson who loves people but can’t stand individuals and has no feelings but is humanitarian. Good work by Hrgetic.

 Brian Haight as The Man, Kevin Forster as Marshall

Kevin Kashani plays the psychiatrist Leonard, one of the more bizarre characters in the play.  Leonard works in a loony bin (his words) and he is completely crackers. Kashami gives a splendid portrayal of the psychiatrist who needs a psychiatrist fast. Kashami also play Percy, a guest at a party on the floor, who is as batty as the psychiatrist.
Kevin Forster plays Marshall and Al, two characters that are almost caricatures and require some showy acting. Marshall seems to have an identity crisis. He is a homosexual about to marry an heiress who almost ran him over, an actor who could not act and a fine character for an actor like Forster. The latter also plays Al, a man who knows how to put an end to a bad party – start a fire.

Margarita Valderrama plays the religiously fanatic Rachel (she poisoned her mother but it was an act of God) and Jennifer, the garrulous dummy who thinks it would be a thrill to jump off the ledge.

Panych has peopled the play with some fascinating and fantastic characters for actors and full credit goes to the cast and even more so to director Rebecca Ballarin for putting everything together and pulling off a successful production.

The play displays, wit, marvellous non-sequiturs and comments about the play itself. One character leaves the stage (closes her window) because there are too many pauses in the conversation. Take that, Pinter. Any number of labels can be attached to the type of play this is but your best bet is to forget branding it and just go and enjoy it.
________


7 Stories by Morris Panych opened on March 3 and continues until March 11, 2017 at Hart House Theatre, 7 Hart House Circle, Toronto, Ontario. www.harthousetheatre.ca Telephone (416) 978-8849

Friday, February 24, 2017

THE WHITE DEVIL – REVIEW SHAKESPEARE’S GLOBE PRODUCTION OF JOHN WEBSTER’S PLAY

James Karas

John Webster had his hand in a number of plays but he is best known for his two revenge tragedies, The Duchess of Malfi and The White Devil. The Duchess is produced regularly but The White Devil seems to be almost completely ignored. Scholars refer to the two plays as masterpieces of the revenge tragedy genre but theatre produces don’t seem to agree about the box office value at least of The White Devil.

Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre has been producing some pretty arcane plays in the small, indoor Sam Wanamaker Playhouse and this year it gave us the chance to see the play which premiered in 1612 and was a flop.

Director Annie Ryan and dramaturg Michael West performed serious surgery on the text and tried to give thee play a comprehensible narrative and a dramatic structure to keep the audience in the loop.
 
One of the major decisions seems to have been to perform the play in semi-darkness. The lighting is provided mostly by candelabras and we rarely get to see well-lit faces. That is one way of emphasizing the murderous evil of just about all the characters but it does have a downside.

If you don’t have a sharp memory or an explanatory character list in front of you, you will be scrambling to figure out who wiped out whom. Staring from the top, we have the Dukes of Florence (Paul Bazely) and Bracciano (Jamie Ballard). Marcello (Jamael Westman) works for the Duke Florence and his brother Flamineo (Joseph Timms) works for the Duke Bracciano. The brothers are poor and their sister Vittoria (Kate Stanley-Brennan) is married to Camillo (Fergal McElherron) who is rich but old.

So far so good. But

The Duke of Bracciano (who is married) is in love with Vittoria and her brother Flamineo sees an opportunity. Why not get rid of Camillo and the Duchess, he suggests to the Duke, and Vittoria will be yours. Rest in peace Duchess and arrivederci Camillo.

But the dead duchess is the sister of the Duke of Florence and Camillo is the nephew of Cardinal Monticelso (Garry Cooper) who will soon get the big promotion to Pope. The brothers are arrested but beat the charges and Vittoria is sent to a House for Fallen Women. The Duke of Florence and the Pope swear revenge.

Bracciano is not about to give up the gorgeous Vittoria so he rescues her from The House and makes her a duchess in a palace and gives good jobs to her brothers and her mother. The Duke of Florence and a couple of friendly enforcers visit the palace in disguise and give a final sendoff to Bracciano, Flamineo murders his brother Marcello, And Vittoria and Flamineo and Zanche (Shanaya Rafaat), the lady-in-waiting are dispatched permanently. We are getting near the end. A new Duke, Giovanni (Mollie Lambert) takes over and he orders the murderers murdered.
 Who is Giovanni? He is Bracciano’s son and Florence’s nephew.

I give this summary because that is almost what I got from the performance and not without the aid of a summary.

The actors generate some energy and the play has some historical interest as an example of a popular genre in the early seventeenth century. But there is no moral centre, there is not even a decent character. Who is the white devil?

If you are a theatre lover, when you take your grandchildren to see The Duchess of Malfi, you will be able to tell them that you have in fact seen the other play by John Webster but you can’t remember anything about it except that it involved a lot of murders and it was acted in semi-darkness.        
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The White Devil by John Webster opened on February 1 and will play until April 16, 2017 at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, 21 New Globe Walk, London. www.shakespearesglobe.com

Thursday, February 23, 2017

FIVE FACES FOR EVELYN FROST – REVIEW OF THÉÂTRE FRANÇAIS DE TORONTO PRODUCTION

James Karas

As you enter the Berkeley Street Downstairs Theatre for the performance of Five Faces for Evelyn Frost you see the stage covered with clothes. Three young women and two men walk on stage and greet the audience politely. They tell us things about themselves. When they were born, their taste in clothes, their motto and mundane bits like that.

They pick up the pace of their speaking until they speak so quickly you can barely understand what they are saying. They slow down and launch into a long segment of telling us what “I like,” what “I’ve seen,” what “I’ve read.” Everything about these people is me, me, me and they address the audience directly almost all the time. Their tastes and the breadth of their musical and literary knowledge is breathtaking and I admit that most of the names they dropped are unknown to me.

Most of them go to a bar and the same type of dialogue continues but the emphasis changes on social media postings. All of them describe what they did, the pictures they took and, it seems, the pictures they posted. This is today’s youth living on Facebook and Twitter?

Playwright Guillaume Corbeil skilfully constructs the narrative from the selfish and perhaps silly narrative of the young people telling us about the great time they are having and leads us into darker developments. What appear as minor chinks develop into serious issues as their lives begin to unravel or perhaps simply encounter reality? The mother who has Alzheimer’s disease, the sex, the drugs, the crimes, the degradation, all come to them. They lead to the ultimate tragedy for youth. I will not tell you what it is for fear of spoiling it for you.

Most of the dialogue consists of short sentences and as the play gains momentum the “I” and “me” style achieves poetic substance. By the end I felt that the play is a requiem for youth.

Evelyn Frost of the title only appears as the photograph of a young, beautiful black woman whom the characters see in the club that they go to. She seems to have everything until we are told she suffers from leukemia. There may be more to her and about her but in the speed at which the play moves I may well have missed it.

The five actors are Laurence Dauphinais, Steffi Didomenicantonio, Tara Nicodemo, Nico Racicot and Alex Weiner and they deserve special praise as does director Claude Poissant. The cast is on stage for the full seventy-five minutes’ duration and they must go through a large number of lines and a variety of emotions. Outstanding work. Kudos to Poissant for bringing out the best in a play that must look pretty bland on the page.

The set by Max-Otto Fauteux consists of the stage covered with clothes and a screen where photos of the characters in various poses as if on Facebook are projected.

This is a Canadian Stage and Théâtre Français de Toronto production which is being done in English and French by the same cast.

The whole thing is an amazing feat.    
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Five Faces for Evelyn Frost by Guillaume Corbeil opened on February 16 and will run in English until March 5 2017. It will be performed in French (Cing Visages pour Evelyne Frost) from March 21 to 25, 2017 with English surtitles at the Berkeley Street Downstairs Theatre, 26 Berkeley Street, Toronto, Ont. www.canstage.com, http://theatrefrancais.com/

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

THE GLASS MENAGERIE - REVIEW OF AMERICAN REPERTORY THEATRE COMPANY PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas

John Tiffany directs a disappointing production of The Glass Menagerie for the American Repertory Theater at The Duke of York’s Theatre in London. This production premiered in the United States in 2013 and has wound its way from Broadway to the Edinburgh Festival before its current showing in the West End.

In the opening scene, Tom (Michael Esper) tells us that this is a memory play and that he is not a magician but does have a few tricks up his sleeve. Tiffany seems to disagree with Tom and makes him a magician or at least lets him show us a few of his tricks. Tiffany makes sure that the play is not realistic and he gives us that message starting with the minimalist stage design. The set consists of a table and a sofa with only one glass figurine (the unicorn) to represent Laura’s (Kate O’Flynn) menagerie. There is also a gramophone which the play calls for.
 Michael Esper and Cherry Jones in The Glass Menagerie. Photo: Johan Persson
The two striking design features are a fire escape that rises from the floor up into the ceiling of the stage and a pool of reflecting water in front of the playing area. Lights fill the pool and represent Laura’s menagerie when she is talking about it.

When Tom goes from his opening remarks on the fire escape he seems to stumble as he falls into the “reality” of the family apartment. Some of the action is mimed during the two dinners that take place during the play. Reality and unreality meet.

There are several magic tricks including one by The Gentleman Caller (Brian J. Smith). When he asks Laura to dance and she hesitates he tells he that her dancing card must be full. He reaches behind her ear and produces a card.

Reflecting pool, grand fire escape, magic tricks, mime – these are the elements that Tiffany brings to the play and they may work to some extent to give the production a distinctive and original approach. For me they did very little.

When Tom addresses the audience, he is a disappointed man looking back at the most momentous decision in his life. He abandons his crushed, invalid sister and goes off to join the merchant navy. I think he should speak in a type of reverie full of regret and guilt. Instead Tiffany has Michael Esper almost yell his lines. In the small Duke of York’s Theatre we could have heard him whisper. Esper almost consistently overdoes it and what we hear is his loud voice instead of his despair.

The apparently self-assured Gentleman Caller who takes public speaking lessons to boost his confidence but has been a miserable failure since his high-school glory days is a bit better but again Tiffany cannot resist adding more physicality to his performance than is necessary.
 Kate O'Flynn and Cherry Jones in The Glass Menagerie. Photo: Johan Persson
Kate O’Flynn gains our sympathy as the pathetic Laura who is crushed by her deformed foot and her domineering and delusional mother.

In Amanda Wingfield (Cherry Jones), Williams created an unforgettable character. She is frustrating and infuriating to the nth degree to the audience let alone to her son and daughter. She lives in an imaginary past of life on a plantation, with wealth, servants, gentlemen callers and class. She is probably imagining all of it but she tortures her children by constantly telling them of her glorious past. She wants Tom to be a success and Laura to have gentlemen callers even if the electricity is shut off for non-payment.

Jones glories in the role as she talks non-stop at times and puts on a gown that she wore decades ago in order to capture the good old days when The Gentlemen Caller, a warehouse worker, visits without knowing the real purpose of the invitation. A bravura performance.

Tiffany wants to put his stamp on the play and eschews the more orthodox productions that follow Williams’ stage directions. That is understandable and indeed laudatory. But the bolder the vision, the riskier it is to bring it off. Tiffany simply does not bring it off as satisfactorily as I would have preferred. Nevertheless, the end of the play with the crushing of Laura’s world is simply shattering.  
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The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams continues until April 29, 2017 at the Duke of York’s Theatre, 45 St. Martin’s Lane, London, WC2N 4BG. The Norman Conquests (2013)
Photos by Cylla von Tiedemann

Monday, February 20, 2017

ROMÉO ET JULIETTE – REVIEW OF LIVE FROM THE MET PRODUCTION

By James Karas

The Metropolitan Opera is treating its world-wide audience in movie theatres with a new production of Roméo et Juliette directed by Bartlett Sher.

There are a number of things that did not fare well as they travelled from New York to us who sat in movie houses but the most important aspects of the production did. That is the singing from soprano Diana Damrau as Juliet and tenor Vittorio Grigolo as Romeo.

The silken-voiced Damrau makes an outstanding Juliet. She is vivacious, playful, deeply moving and sufficiently young-looking to be convincing. She is perfectly matched with tenor Vittorio Grigolo who displays the same physical attributes of youth and vivacity as her and has that marvelous voice that can scale the octaves with tonal beauty and assurance.
 
Mikhail Petrenko as Friar Laurence, Vittorio Grigolo as Roméo, and Diana Damrau as Juliette in Gounod's Roméo et Juliette. Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.
In their duets and solo arias we see their ardour, their enthusiasm and, in the end, their tragedy with pleasure and tears.

They have fine help. The 29-year old Torontonian baritone Elliot Madore plays a firebrand Mercutio who delivers the Queen Mab aria, “Mab, la reine des mensonges.” He endows it with vigour, vivacity and marvelous touches.

Russian bass Mikhail Petrenko sang a sympathetic Friar Laurence and British mezzo-soprano Diana Montague made a splendid Gertrude, Juliet’s nurse.

This is a new production for the Met directed by Sher who is a man of the theatre with considerable experience in staging operas. He sets the opera in the 18th century. The ruffles, three-cornered hats, wigs for the men of rank, elegant gowns for the women bespeak a high society of wealth and class. All designed by Catherine Zuber.

The set designed by Michael Yeargan features the exterior/interior of an impressive three-story palazzo with monumental columns, balconies and large windows. It serves as the background for the entire performance. Before Juliet visits Friar Lawrence, he appears on stage dragging a cart and he sets up his chapel on a raised part of the stage. For the final scene in the crypt some large stands are placed on the stage on one of which Romeo and Juliet will act out their final tragic scene.

There is nothing wrong with this. Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London performs plays on the same background with necessary props being brought in. The issue was that we in the movie theatre could hardly see the background much of the time. Everything happens during the night in the opera, it seems, and the lighting for the broadcast is simply inadequate. The audience in Lincoln Center may have seen something different than the rest of us but one cannot be sure.
 
 Vittorio Grigolo as Roméo and Elliot Madore as Mercutio in Gounod's Roméo et Juliette. 
Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.
The main problem, as always it seems, in watching Live from the Met, is cinema director Gary Halvorson. Sher wants the production to be paced briskly and energetically. Good choice but with Halvorson changing camera shots as if he were playing a video game, brisk becomes frenetic and close-ups become embarrassing. If you do not want to see Grigolo’s larynx, close your eyes. Halvosron, sees nothing wrong with giving us a close-up of Damrau or Grigolo that covers the almost entire screen. The singing and the acting take place in context but that fact seems to have escaped Halvosron. He shows random and unbelievably numerous shots like a child with ADD. That is my rant about him for the day.

This production is new for the Met but it is in fact a La Scala production that was initially seen in Salzburg in 2008. A DVD of a live performance with Rolando Villazon as Romeo and Nino Machaidze as Juliet is available from Deutsche Grammophon. There is superlative singing and orchestral playing under the baton of Yannick Nézet-Seguin but the interesting point for this review is the handling of the recording by Brian Large. You can judge what a sensible director does with changing shots as compared to the unbearable treatment from Halvosron.  
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Roméo et Juliette by Charles Gounod will be broadcast again at various theatres on February 27 and March 1, 2017. For information about future broadcasts visit www.metopera.org/hdlive or www.cineplex.com

Saturday, February 18, 2017

DIE GOTTERDAMMERUNG – REVIEW OF CANADIAN OPERA COMPANY PRODUCTION

By James Karas

The second production offered by the Canadian Opera Company for its winter season is a revival of Tim Albery’s 2006 staging of Die Gotterdammerung.

The final scene of the opera as Wagner described it, can hardly be imagined let alone staged but the current production brings it home with outstanding splendour. In the closing moments, we hear (and imagine) Brünnhilde’s ecstatic leap into the fire, we see the immolation reflected in the faces of the chorus. The surging and spectacular music slowly recedes as does the fire and we see the Rhine flowing calmly, the Rhinemaidens regain the ring as the music becomes extraordinarily beautiful and sweet. When Conductor Johannes Debus lowered his baron for the final chord, the audience burst out into applause and a standing ovation.
 

 (l-r) Ain Anger as Hagen, Ileana Montalbetti as Gutrune, Andreas Schager as Siegfried and 
Martin Gantner as Gunther. Photo: Michael Cooper
In other words the star of the evening was the Canadian Opera Company Orchestra and Debus. They played Wagner’s incomparable score with all its grandeur, ecstatic beauty and serene splendor magnificently.

The singing was generally outstanding. Austrian tenor Andreas Schager sang a heroic and vocally and physically impressive Siegfried. American soprano Christine Goerke sang a powerful Brünnhilde. She is a relatively recent arrival to Wagnerian roles but she dominated the performance with her Nilssonesque stamina and dramatic expression. She soared over the orchestra in a singularly impressive performance.

On the baddy side (the characters not the performers), Estonian bass Ain Anger carried the laurel wreath for his portrayal of the nasty Hagen. Anger brought out the manipulative, power-hungry character of the villain with superb panache. German baritone Martin Gantner provided comparison and contrast as Hagen’s half-brother Gunther in a well-delineated characterization of the Gibichung. Gunther is inadequate, envious, devious but incapable of going for the jugular and under the thumb of Hagen. 

Tim Albery’s production falls squarely into the modern-dress, unheroic trend of Wagnerian productions. Otto Schenk’s production for the Metropolitan Opera, with its grandiose sets and traditional costumes held sway for over twenty years at the Metropolitan Opera to be replaced by the quirky Robert Lepage version. Many productions at Bayreuth have attracted very loud boos and I know people who refuse to go to the Festival because they consider the productions “Eurotrash.” Last year, one production of the Ring was set in a motel on Route 66 and it was all about oil around the world.
 
Christine Goerke as Brünnhilde. Photo: Michael Cooper 
Albery is somewhere in the middle. When the curtain opens we see cables running across the stage symbolizing The Ropes of Destiny spun by the none-too-exciting Norns. The next scene is the morning after the honeymoon night of Siegfried and Brünnhilde where our hero reveals that he had some performance anxiety during the night. The only prop is a bed and we will see it several times before the end of the opera. It is carried on stage even when Siegfried is assassinated. There are some lighting effects and hanging neon lights.  

The hall of the Gibichungs is furnished with Ikea furniture and in the later scene there is a huge boardroom table. Hagen and Gunter have a lot of staff (the whole Chorus, in fact) and they are all dressed in gray suits. When they are summoned to war-like behavior, they toss their jackets on the floor and jump on the large table.

Except for the scenes in the hall of the Gibichungs the back of the set is dark and the props are minimal. Siegfried wears a leather jacket over a T-shirt but he does dress up for his wedding. The women wear mostly gowns that do not draw attention to their attire.

The point here is that the costumes made very little difference after one noticed them. The music and the singing are so overwhelming that you are drawn into the drama completely and cease noticing or caring about the set or what anyone is wearing.

A great night at the opera.                     
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Die Gotterdammerung by Richard Wagner being performed seven times between February 2 and 25, 2017 at the Four Seasons Centre, 145 Queen St. West Toronto. www.coc.ca